Tragedy struck close to home this week with the painful announcement that a family member of a close friend had committed suicide. At times like these, being empathic feels more like a curse than a blessing. I feel acutely the agony of those he left behind — his wife, his daughters, his parents, and all those who loved him. In their struggle to understand the journey that led him to make this fateful choice, they lean on their faith, which is now amplified by the hope of forgiveness, redemption, and a merciful God.
I want so badly to tap them on the shoulder and politely interrupt their mourning to ask them if they would like some insight into this man.
I wonder if it would provide relief or more turmoil for them to know that their beloved did not share the family’s religious views; that he only pretended to because it was easier for him than facing their condemnation. I wonder if the slightest bit of Unconditional Love — the kind that is not predicated on the fulfillment of a pre-defined role or maintaining a certain set of religious standards — might have given him hope to continue living.
Though his family ponders why he would choose to take his own life, I do not. I understand very clearly the depths of his despair. The fear of his family’s alienation kept him trapped. He spent his whole life struggling to reconcile the glimpses of his inner knowing with the doctrine that was shoved down his throat. He was expected to swallow every bit of the dogma whether he enjoyed it or not, with no consideration for his own personal preferences.
Yes, I understand the torment of a deeply spiritual man who never felt free enough to explore outside of ‘the box’. I do, however, have an entirely different set of questions:
· How often within the family unit, does one member suffer silently, fearing the judgment and persecution of those who claim to love her/him the most?
· When did our culture start withdrawing love and acceptance as a means of punishing the dissenters?
· Why is the fear of disapproval so much stronger than the courage it takes to trust our own feelings?
· Why should anyone feel the need to hide their true self? Especially from their loved ones?
· Do parents and family members understand how damning their condescension and criticism feels? Do they care?
· Why does it take something as drastic as a suicide for others to consider an alternate, compassionate approach?
· Is it possible to prevent others from making a similar choice?
· What would it take?
When I look at this situation, my heart aches for every person who is affected by his death. The loss of a father, son, brother, and friend is tremendous — and when you add the weight of confusion and guilt, the burden may be quite difficult to bear. We can all stand to learn from their experience.
If you recognize yourself as one who is trapped, I am grateful you are reading this. You need to know that you are not alone. Your thoughts and ideas have a basis outside of the limited trappings of religion and you are valued for your uniqueness. There are others who deeply empathize with you and are willing to offer you encouragement and support as you build up courage to acknowledge your truth.
And for the rest of us — we can do more to reach out to those who feel isolated within their own circle of family and friends. Let us extend unconditional love and acceptance to everyone. I invite you to co-create an environment of safety and trust, so that our friends and family members have full confidence they can explore their own questions without fear of condemnation or any kind of repercussion.
by Janet Louise Stephenson